Consistency is Key

You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook page.

Today let’s chat about the very thing that was most likely lacking over the holidays- consistency! We all know that consistency is the KEY- if you don’t know and you’re new around here- that’s okay, we’re going to loop you in here.

In general- I subscribe to the law of you can only have two. There are lots of versions of this law. There’s the student version: you can only have two: sleep, good grades, social life. There’s the business version: good, fast, cheap. My single friend recently introduced me to the dating version: good looking, employed, emotionally stable. The food version: tasty, cheap, good for you. The Mom version: clean house, happy kids, your sanity. Pick two. And then there’s the behavior modification one: Quality, Speed, and Effort.

You can make a good quality, lasting behavior change quickly, but it’s going to take a lot of effort.

You can make a quick behavior change easily, but it’s not going to be a durable solution.

You can make a durable behavior change without putting much effort into it, but it’s going to take a LONG TIME to accomplish.

The rule of pick two.

Consistency is the exception to that rule. It is the one thing that anyone can do that takes effect really quickly, it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort, and it makes a really durable change.

Often just about any kind of parenting technique will work if there’s consistency. That’s why you hear parents who swear by behavior charts and token economies and even corporal punishment. Because sure- anything will work with enough consistency! And by “work” I mean produce children who are compliant and respectful and do what they’re told- you know, the typical definition of well-behaved. The problem with things like behavior charts, spankings, token economies, time-outs, etc. is that they require external consistency to function. Whenever I’m choosing parenting techniques to teach, one of the “tests” I make it pass through is- is this only going to work if I’m there to enforce it? Or is it going to require me to get it up and running but once it is, either the child can take it on themselves or it’s pretty much self-reinforcing? Those are the winning strategies because they don’t require us to be externally consistent. Now, that’s not the only test I put it though- I also worry about developmental appropriateness, respectfulness, neurologically does it make sense and a bunch of other stuff. But if it doesn’t pass the consistency test, it’s really not worth teaching.

So why is consistency so important? What makes that the key? And the reason is that consistency equals safety. We touched on this briefly last week. Plain and simple. Everybody has what are called “mirror neurons” in our brains. These mirror neurons are the reason yawning is contagious. They’re all throughout our brain- and they only fire when an act has intention behind it- when we can perceive its purpose and can predict it. Like if we see someone randomly flailing around, our mirror neurons won’t fire- but if we see someone swatting a bug, we’ll automatically become aware of the bugs around us and start swatting them even if the second before we weren’t bothered by the insects. These neurons use context and perceived intention to help us figure out what’s coming next on an instinctual level.

Basically, that means that when children can predict the outcome of an event, they don’t have to actively think about it. And when they don’t have to actively think about it- they use less energy, and they do it automatically. The more energy we have in our tank at any given time, the better we can self-regulate, the more available our thinking, analytical, rational parts of our brains are…the better our behavior. The less consistency, the more we have to actively use our awareness to think about what’s going on around us to keep ourselves safe- which takes way more energy- and the faster we become tired and easily hyperaroused… and when we’re hyperaroused or stressed our brain shuts down the thinking, analytical, rational part of our brain to conserve energy so that our “downstairs brain” areas- has the energy to keep us safe from threat. Just like we talked about last week.

When our kids can predict actions and events, they behave better for longer! When inconsistency creeps in- like over the holidays when events and actions happen that happen at literally no other time in the year: we’re going to parties and staying up late and we have to wait in line and wear fancy clothes and all these people we don’t see often show up and try and put expectations on us that we’ve probably never had put on us before- it sucks up our energy much quicker, their good behavior lasts a much shorter period of time, and that’s when you end up walking out of the company party with your 4-year-old slung over your shoulder like a sack of potatoes while they scream in your ear.

That’s why strategies like Natural and Logical Consequences and the Logical Consequence Process, Planned Ignoring, Executive Skill reinforcement, Social Stories, Visual communication, and Self-Reg work so well- because it teaches children the real purpose behind actions! Not made up ones that “teach a lesson” but don’t actually exist in real life. Once they begin to be able to predict those outcomes- they become self-reinforcing and you don’t have to be hovering over them actively controlling them anymore. I’m not saying that being consistent doesn’t take some effort and that you can just totally set it and forget it- but it does eventually allow you to back off much more.

This is also why, when a child is going through a large life shift like a new sibling or a move or starting school or a divorce or losing a significant adult in their life I always advise parents to just, turn up the consistency quotient a little bit. Life transitions are by their very nature inconsistent! Something big is changing. So if you can make other aspects of their life more consistent and predictable, it frees them up to devote their energy to learning the new order of things. This goes for developmental leaps too- nothing may have changed from your perspective- but your child literally went to sleep with one view and understanding of the world and woke up with all these new possibilities they weren’t aware of the night before. So when you can see that your child is going through a leap, that’s another good time to dial up the consistency a bit. Once they simmer down you can dial it back to normal again.

I’m not saying that you can never do anything out of routine or try new things. Not at all. But flexible thinking, set shifting, problem-solving- those are executive functioning skills. They live in your prefrontal cortex- that rational, thinking, analytical part of the brain I was talking about. Your child cannot be flexible when they don’t feel safe, because that downstairs brain is using up all the resources to keep them safe. So yes- BE FLEXIBLE- but don’t throw everything out at once. When you know your child is going to have to be flexible, try and keep other aspects of their life consistent. Even in the flexibility, keep your expectations consistent. Keep your reactions consistent. Consistency doesn’t mean structure or schedule. When I say be consistent I don’t mean you have to turn into a robot and operate by the clock.

I’ll give you an example of consistency co-existing with flexibility.

Over the holidays we were at my parents’ house and we had Christmas dinner at my brother and sister-in-law’s. So we have a bunch of inconsistency going on because not only were we out of our home environment we were also in a brand new one- they just bought their first house and this was the first time we’d ever been there. The sister-in-law’s family was around so there was a bunch of people we don’t see often too. And it was Christmas so we were doing a bunch of stuff like unwrapping presents and eating in a large group and having appetizers and such that we wouldn’t generally do. And that was fine! But we maintained our expectations. My sister-in-law’s brother is like- 20- and he has all this energy so he was running around wrestling and fighting with the boys which were AWESOME- but our expectations about how they handle themselves during that kind of play was maintained. Everyone has to agree to the rules before you start. Everyone has to agree to stop when someone says stop. All that stuff I talked about last year in the class on rough and tumble play, right? We don’t antagonize the dogs. There were 3 dogs there! Mealtime expectations stayed the same- they had to sit at their seat but they didn’t have to eat, we helped them serve themselves… all that good stuff. We maintained normal expectations even though their environment and the events happening were new. We didn’t allow my sister in law to say “oh it’s okay” when my 2 years old spilled his juice box all over the floor- we made him clean it up because that’s the expectation and removing it would have been far more distressing than maintaining it. I used a visual schedule and a first/then board to let them know the order of events even though they were events they’ve never done before. Completely flexible day, but I used my tools to keep it as consistent as possible.

I’m not saying you need to be inflexible. Or that you have to do the exact same schedule every day. But when it comes to expectations and how you respond to your children, how you communicate with them and how you prepare them for new events- consistency is the key to good behavior. It makes good behavior an easy habit. It removes as many energy expenditures as possible so that they can use it where it counts: behaving.

Consistency is the key. It is quick to implement, it doesn’t take a lot of effort, and it’s DURABLE, lasting, good quality change.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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